[NOTE: I was going through some of the papers I wrote for classes this past semester and thought I’d post a few of the ones that focus on various art forms. This was my final research paper for my honors class on Banned Media. I have no copyright, but stealing isn’t cool and you’ll probably get busted anyway, so don’t do it. Feel free, however, to use the works cited for inspiration.]
The 1950s saw the Production Code Administration’s firm grip on Hollywood loosening. Studios had to compete with television for viewer’s attention, and oftentimes found that they could fill theater seats by pushing the envelope, in terms of subject matter. They were less willing to comply with the Code if it meant taking a loss at the box office. Director Elia Kazan knew this, and relied on edgy material to draw in an audience. It had worked with his adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, and he employed the tactic yet again with another Williams adaptation, Baby Doll. This time around, however, his film became the target of the Catholic Church’s ire, and a pawn in the Production Code Administration’s struggle for power and relevancy. The objections to Baby Doll were certainly based on morality – so much so that it became a matter of eternal damnation for Catholics to see it – but it truly became something of a landmark of censorship history when it got tied up in the politics of Hollywood.
Based on a one-act play by Williams, entitled 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (Palmer par. 4), Baby Doll focused on the marriage of a middle-aged cotton gin owner, Archie Lee (played by Karl Malden), to 19-year old Baby Doll (played by Caroll Baker). Baby Doll agreed to the marriage at the behest of her now deceased father, and with Archie’s promise that he would wait until her 20th birthday to consummate their union. The film takes place during the two days leading up to her 20th birthday, and both Baby Doll and Archie are considerably aware of the occasion. The first half of the film establishes their dysfunctional relationship and climaxes when Archie, in a fit of anger at his failing business and sexual frustration, burns down a neighboring cotton gin that had been putting him out of business, along with every other cotton gin owner in their county. The next day, the owner of that cotton gin, a Sicilian immigrant named Silva Vacarro (played by Eli Wallach) comes to their house, distracts Archie with business propositions, and promptly seduces Baby Doll, who lets it leak that Archie was the one who burnt down his cotton gin.
When Kazan first toyed with the idea of making Baby Doll, the Production Code Administration (PCA) was still being run by its first director, Joe Breen. No studio could seriously expect their film to be featured in prominent cinemas across America unless it passed the Code’s standards. Technically, then, Breen controlled which films would be seen by Americans, and what content would have to be cut before approval could be given to said films. Interestingly enough, just prior to becoming the director of the PCA, Breen, along with Martin Quigley, publisher of The Motion Picture Herald and co-author of the original Code, formed the Legion of Decency (Brook 349). The Legion of Decency was a Catholic review board with its own ratings system for films (Walsh 99-100). Because of Breen’s strong Catholic affiliations, the PCA and the Legion of Decency worked almost hand-in-hand in objecting to “questionable” content in films.
It was Martin Quigley, in fact, who most likely drafted the statement that Cardinal Spellman gave, condemning Baby Doll, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City on the 16th of December, 1956. The Cardinal had delivered statements such as this on only two previous occasions, “to attack Communism and to discuss the imprisonment of Josef Cardinal Mindszenty in Communist-controlled Hungary” (Haberski 62-3). His very public condemnation of the film and those who chance to view it was essentially unprecedented at the time (63). But, most importantly, the Cardinal had not actually seen the film. He merely insisted that “one didn’t have to contract an illness to know what it was” (Walsh 275). Quigley was the one who stoked his ire. He was convinced that if Baby Doll were successful, it would signal the end of the Code, so he urged Cardinal Spellman to give the address, which “warned Catholics to refrain from patronizing the film ‘under pain of mortal sin’” (275).
Quigley’s fears were not unfounded. America’s changing views during and directly after World War II seemed to be calling for a relaxation of the Code. After going to battle over the right to include the word “damn” in Gone with the Wind, producer David Selznick had “called for ‘pictures different from the norm, pictures unhampered by a rigid Production Code’” (Brook 350). The PCA began to heed his call, “most notably with the approval of a host of darkly seductive crime films that would launch the film noir cycle” in the mid-1940s (350). In 1952, the Code was dealt an even more destructive blow with the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Burstyn v. Wilson. The Court ruled that movies should be guaranteed protection under the First Amendment. While the decision “stopped short of eliminating state censorship…the authority of the local boards was curbed.” Because “countering threats of government censorship was one of the prime justifications for Code enforcement,” this decision certainly weakened the PCA and its hold on the film industry.
But if the Code was under the threat of collapse, then so was the movie industry in general. Kazan himself firmly believed that, “with fewer and fewer people willing to leave their television sets, the industry was fighting for its life and had to come up with exceptional stories and ‘really unusual treatment’” (Walsh 274). If he was looking to create an exceptional movie with Baby Doll, he succeeded, at least in some regards. Time Magazine’s review of the film called it, “just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited.” It also quotes the Legion of Decency as saying that the film “dwells almost without variation or relief upon carnal suggestiveness.” But these were in line with the criticisms Kazan had been fielding all throughout the production of Baby Doll.
During the planning and production of the film, the PCA underwent a regime change. In 1954, two years before the film’s release, Geoffrey Shurlock, “a middle-aged Briton, highly cultured and well-read” (Brook 352) took Joe Breen’s position as director of the PCA. Shurlock had a much more progressive view than Breen, as he believed that the Code should not eliminate scenes of realistic human behavior in films, as long as they were not overly offensive. He also oversaw the first amendments made to the Code in its 25-year history, “erasing taboos against miscegenation, alcoholism and some profanity” (352). But that didn’t ensure that Baby Doll would cruise past the PCA with no objections.
The first script titled Baby Doll – there were various name changes throughout the development stage – was sent to Shurlock in October 1955. Shurlock responded, sending a letter to Jack Warner of Warner Bros. He declared that he had still found Code violations in the script. There were the usual objections over mild cursing and usage of the N-word, but the mostly Shurlock was worried about “the script’s allusions to adultery, the unconsummated marriage between Baby Doll and Archie Lee…and a doctor’s visit in which Archie’s impotence is implied.” He felt that these moments and various lines of dialogue very directly pointed to Archie’s sexual frustration. He also felt that a reference to Baby Doll having “grown up” by the end of the film might seem to indicate her newfound sexual fulfillment. One month later, while on location filming Baby Doll, Kazan responded to these worries in a letter to Warner, saying that he would comply with all of the suggestions save one:
I cannot reduce the element of Archie Lee’s sex frustration… This film is about one thing and only one thing. It’s about a middle-aged man who is held at arm’s length by his young wife… I cannot change the doctor scene and furthermore assert unequivocally that it has nothing to do with sex frustration since every middle-aged man is familiar with the sudden slump in ALL his powers that comes dismayingly in his late forties… Furthermore, Baby Doll does grow up in the story, but I will make clear her growing up has nothing to do with her having had her first vaginal orgasm. (353)
The final cut of the film that one can see now indicates that Kazan got away with making very few changes.
Shurlock’s objections to the script and film are very indicative, I think, of the true reason that the PCA, the Legion of Decency, the Catholic Church, and many Americans condemned the film. The Catholic Church has a well-documented history of eschewing sex so often and with such vehemence that it seems they fear it. The PCA, the Legion of Decency, and theaters across America were, almost certainly, run or owned by white, middle-aged men much like Archie Lee. Of course they would be offended by and sensitive about any allusions to the impotence that ails men of their age. It also depicted a woman outsmarting her husband by taking up with another man, perhaps in a sexual sense and undoubtedly in a vengeful sense, as when she signs an affidavit testifying to Archie’s guilt. These are themes that make powerful, middle-aged men uncomfortable.
Of course, there were also the more political reasons why opposing this film would benefit these men, and the Code in general. With the Supreme Court ruling and the changing public opinion, both the Legion of Decency and the PCA were suffering a loss of power. By taking on Baby Doll, and having the Church exercise a new tactic of ordering parishioners to avoid the film on pain of eternal damnation, they were able to exercise some form of power. The Legion in particular feared that if the film were to be successful, any future action they may take could be extremely difficult. They most certainly fought stubbornly against it, organizing pickets and mail campaigns against theaters that booked the film. In Connecticut, all three bishops “issued an unprecedented joint statement warning their people to avoid the film,” and several bishops placed “a six-month attendance ban on theaters that showed it” in their area (Walsh 275-76). Kazan himself wrote of movie theaters where “‘priests, stationed in the lobbies, notebooks in hand,’” were ready to take down the names of any parishioners who defied the rulings of the Church (Brook 356).
In the end, the campaign both worked and failed. At first, the whole ordeal drove people to the theaters to see the film. However, ticket sales dropped rapidly, and by the end of its run, Baby Doll had barely broken even (356). There are those who suggest, though, that it wouldn’t have broken even without the controversy, so perhaps it was a help. While the quasi-success of the film did not kill the Legion or the PCA, nor did it signal the collapse of the Code just yet, it did perhaps hint at the coming shift in the ratings system and the slackened influence of the Church on the film industry (357-58).
None of this is to say that these organizations had no basis for their moral objections to Baby Doll, however. At the time, the themes were most likely troubling. Adultery, revenge, using sex as a tool, impotence, and sexual dysfunction or frustration were vivid themes in the film. Then there are the scenes that are constantly pointed to as examples of the vulgarity of the film, in particular the scene where Vacarro seduces Baby Doll on a swing. Though certainly not obscene by today’s standards, it “does feature close-ups of a panting and cooing Baby Doll as Vacarro’s hand slides suggestively downward and out of frame” (354-55), which is suggestive and, by the standards of that time period, it’s somewhat easy to understand why it was considered as highly sexual. There was also much made of the ambiguous scene where Vacarro takes a nap in the crib Baby Doll uses as her bed, which many took to mean that he and Baby Doll had been intimate (Walsh 274).
Kazan’s defense against these insinuations was also logical. He pointed out that sex in the crib would have been physically impossible due to its limited size (274). As for the swing scene, he argued that it was all talk and little action. He even “took the PCA censor Jack Vizzard and Shurlock through the film frame by frame, defying the censors to show him when and where Baby Doll and Silva [Vacarro] consummate their affair,” which they were unable to do (Lewis 123). By taking their attention away from the “film’s larger thematic defiance of the code” and focusing it on the smaller parts that made the whole, Kazan was able to acquire a PCA seal (124).
Despite all the problematic aspects of Baby Doll, it is still a bit puzzling just why the censors chose to target it so harshly while they let other films get away with similar, if not worse, Code violations. Barton Palmer points out, in his essay “Baby Doll: The Success of Scandal,” that in 1953, three years before Baby Doll’s release, From Here to Eternity won the Academy Award, despite the fact that it “featured a passionate adulterous relationship and a good many scenes staged at a thinly disguised brothel.” There was nothing comparable to that in Baby Doll, and at most, Kazan makes ambiguous the matter of whether or not Vacarro and Baby Doll’s affair was consummated. Palmer notes, “No such ambiguity is to be found in the corresponding seduction scene in From Here to Eternity with the ‘suggestive posture’ of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr on the beach leaving little to the imagination” (par. 18).
So the question remains: What made Baby Doll so offensive? Aside from the obvious political issue, that it came around at a time when both the PCA and the Legion needed to remind America that they still maintained some authority, I think there were various reasons why it was a prime candidate for martyrdom. For one, it took aim at the very kind of people who ran these organizations, middle-aged, white, American men, so embarrassingly represented onscreen by Archie Lee. It also refused to redeem any of the characters. There’s something unlikable about every one of the main characters in the film – Archie and Silva are both vengeful, Baby Doll is manipulative and whiny, Silva’s intentions are unclear, and Archie is every bit an untrustworthy, perverted, drunken fool. The film also depicted an unhappy marriage that is only unhappier by the end. These are things that the Code was staunchly opposed to, and that Americans were also supposed to be against. I think what really stood out about this film was the strange child-like sexuality of Baby Doll. I doubt that such an idea had ever been played out to this extent on screen before, and it was probably alone in that regard until Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Lolita came along in 1962.
Baby Doll is frequently compared to a child – she sleeps in a crib in a nursery, she throws tantrums, and she sucks her thumb – but she is also a sexual character. The first time we see her, Archie is peering at her through a peephole as she sleeps. His lust for her is apparent, and it’s a startling image to open the film with – a middle-aged man clearly desiring this girl who is sleeping in a crib, sucking her thumb. It’s fitting that she is portrayed in such a way, as she is perched on the line between being a girl and being a woman. We are told early on that, if things go according to their plan, Archie and Baby Doll will be consummating their marriage in just two days. Even though things don’t go according to plan, she still becomes “grown up” by the end, and is awakened to her sexuality by a man who is not her husband. Though Baby Doll is 19, and very close to 20, she is played as a much younger girl, at least at the beginning of the film. I can easily see viewers, even today, being a bit uneasy about a childlike character who is also so frankly portrayed in a sexual way.
It’s fairly well accepted that the Catholic Church has a history of fearing sex, but it is also true that Americans have issues with the sexuality of young girls, and even with the sexuality of all women, though not so much in recent years. It flies in the face of the innocent image we want to affix to every girl. I think this is a distinct, although mostly unvoiced, reason why it was easy to create such controversy around Baby Doll. It did not even have to be stated that this was a disturbing element, but I think that even the most unaware viewer would feel a bit wary of the intersection of girlhood and sexuality on display in this film, especially during the 1950s.
Baby Doll. Dir. Elia Kazan. Perf. Caroll Baker, Eli Wallach, and Karl Malden. Warner Bros., 1956. Film.
Brook, Vincent. “Courting Controversy: The Making and Selling of Baby Doll and the Demise of the Production Code.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 18.4 (2001): 347-360. MLA Database. Web. 18 Apr. 2010.
“Cinema: New Picture, Dec. 24, 1956.” TIME.com. 24 Dec. 1956. Time Magazine. 20 Apr. 2010. Web.
Haberski Jr., Raymond J. Freedom to Offend. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007. Print.
Lewis, Jon. Hollywood v. Hard Core. New York: New York University Press, 2000. Print.
Palmer, Barton. “Baby Doll: The Success of Scandal.” The Tennessee Williams Annual Review 4 (2001). Web. 19 Apr. 2010.
Walsh, Frank. Sin and Censorship. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. Print.